What is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis Elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, occurs when the tendons that connect the elbow to the muscles of the forearm suffer injury or wear and tear. NJ Spine and Ortho is here to help you understand this condition and your treatment options.
Your elbow is a hinge joint. The strong bone of the humerus (or upper arm) meets with the more delicate bones of the forearm (i.e. the ulna and radius) to create the elbow. With the aid of tendons and muscles, your elbow can flex or extend the forearm. It can also rotate the radius to allow you to turn your hand palm-side up.
The humerus also contains knuckle-like protrusions known as epicondyles. These bony knobs serve as points of attachment for the tendons that connect to the forearm muscles. If the tendons that attach to your lateral epicondyle rip, then tennis elbow is the result. If the tendons that fasten to your medial epicondyle tear, then doctors refer to this condition as golfer’s elbow.
The primary difference between the two?
With tennis elbow, the tendons that attach to your extensor muscles, like the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB), suffer damage. With golfer’s elbow, the tendons that connect to your flexor muscles are the culprit.
What are the Symptoms of Tennis Elbow?
If you have tennis elbow, then you may notice the following symptoms:
- Pain on the outside of the arm, above the lateral epicondyle on the humerus
- Morning stiffness in the elbow, arm, or wrist
- Sore forearm muscles
- Loss of grip strength in the hands
- Difficulty rotating the radius (or forearm)
- Pain while straightening out the elbow, shaking hands, forming a first, or performing other movements associated with elbow extension or wrist rotation
Do these symptoms sound like you? If you’re not a tennis player, then you might be surprised to find out that they do. However, athletes aren’t the only people who develop tennis elbow. Anyone who works in a field that relies heavily on elbow extension can experience this set of problems. In particular, plumbers, painters, chefs, butchers, and carpenters develop tennis elbow more often than members of the general population.
Pain Management Tips for Treating Tennis Elbow at Home
90% of individuals who develop tennis elbow will be able to treat their condition successfully at home or using conservative treatments, like physical therapy.
If you have a mild case of tennis elbow, then you can try these at home remedies:
(Mostly) Natural Remedies for Tennis Elbow
- Try The “RICE” Method: RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, & Elevation. When the inflammation of tennis elbow first arises, try to refrain from activities (like painting) that rely heavily on the use of the forearm muscles. Your doctor may even recommend that you wear a splint or brace to force immobilization of the elbow. For the first 2-3 days, apply ice packs to the elbow and forearm for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times throughout the day. At the 4 day mark, try to apply alternating rounds of ice and heat. Now that the swelling has gone down, the heat will draw blood (rich in healing nutrients) to the tendon. As needed, elevate the arm or use loose compression wraps to reduce any swelling.
- Take Anti-Inflammatory Medications: Try over-the-counter NSAIDs, like aspirin or ibuprofen, to manage your pain. Keep in mind that you can always upgrade to steroid injections or prescription-strength medications if OTC drugs do not prove sufficient relief.
- Eat a Diet Rich in Anti-Inflammatory Foods: If you would like to go a more natural route, then modify your diet to include anti-inflammatory foods. Some of the top anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Fruits, like pineapples, cherries, and berries
- Leafy Greens, like spinach, kale, or Swiss chard
- Fatty Fish, like salmon, tuna, or mackerel
- Nuts, like walnuts or almonds
- Healthy oils, like coconut or olive oil
- Superfoods, like Apple Cider Vinegar
- Antioxidant-rich foods, like beets
- Fragrant spices, like ginger or tumeric
- Use Essential Oils: You can also apply certain essential oils as topicals to the elbow. Usually, this involves diluting several drops of the essential oil with a carrier oil (like coconut or olive oil) or water. For best results, always follow package instructions. Ideal oils to treat tennis elbow include peppermint, lemongrass, lavender, and cypress essential oils.
Exercises & Stretches for Tennis Elbow
After you have overcome the acute pain of tennis elbow, rest is usually not recommended for your condition. Research shows that gentle exercise can break up adhesions and reduce the pain of tennis elbow in the long-run. For the best results, always consult your doctor before implementing an exercise plan.
- Ball Squeeze: Holding a tennis or rubber ball in your upturned palm, squeeze the ball for 5 seconds at a time, then release. Repeat this exercises for 3 sets of 10. Although somewhat simple, this exercise will help you regain lost hand grip strength.
- Wrist Flexor Exercise: Rest your arm with your elbow fully extended on a flat table. Make sure that your palm is turned upward, and your wrist and hand are the only parts of your arm that extend beyond the edge of the table. Gripping a small weight (3 – 5 pounds) in your outstretched palm, slowly lift your wrist toward your body, and then drop slowly. As before, repeat this exercise for 3 sets of 10.
- Wrist Extensor Stretch: Extend your arm in front of you with your elbow fully straightened, but your palm facing downward. Using your opposite hand, gently pull the fingers of your affected hand down and toward the body. Hold this position for at least 20 seconds, then release. Repeat 3 – 5 times. This exercise will stretch the extensor muscles in your forearm that allow you to straighten out your wrist.
- Isometric Wrist Extension: With your arm fully extended, elbow straight, and palm facing downward, enlist the help of a partner to create gentle resistance. While you try to bend your wrist backward (with fingers pointing to the ceiling), your partner will use their hand to oppose your movement. Resist this force for 5 seconds, then release. Repeat exercise 10 – 12 times.
When All Else Fails…
So, you’ve tried the RICE method, over-the-counter medications, and simple stretches. You’ve even hit up your local health food store and put a temporary halt to activities that aggravate your elbow joint, like playing tennis. But, when it comes to alleviating your elbow pain, still… no dice. If you’ve been at it for a couple of weeks without witnessing results, then it’s probably time to consult with your local elbow specialist.
Fortunately, a board-certified orthopedist has many tricks up their sleeve–and not all of these involve surgery. An elbow expert can help you network with the right professionals–like physical therapists–who can relieve your pain.
If your pain doesn’t abate after 6 weeks of conservative measures, then you may want to consider surgery. A minimally invasive procedure, like elbow arthroscopy, is a sure-fire method to permanently silence your pain. For innovative, and minimally invasive treatments that you can trust, contact our elbow specialists at NJ Spine & Orthopedic today!